It is so fashionable to talk about this being a moment of discontinuity that it must be true: In Higher Education, such discussions have reached a fever pitch. All the forces that make today look different from yesterday are bearing on the change of Higher Education: The recession is transforming the careers and aspirations, the technology is changing daily lives and the institution meltdown is challenging the notions of authorship and knowledge. In the middle of all this, the demand for Higher Education is rising, in fact by so much that it is filling up the institutions and pushing them to expand. But at this moment of supposed glory, most institutions look definitely downbeat and out of sync.
I shall argue, this is because the times are discontinuous. For all the talk about creation and dissemination of knowledge, writes Louis Menand, the purpose of the system is to reproduce the system. At the moments of discontinuity, such as this one, there is nothing much to reproduce. The commentators and policy-makers may continue to search for an answer, and the sector may settle for various panacea-of-the-day solutions, but no definitive solution is in sight for it to rediscover its purpose and regain its vitality.
It is not that I am claiming that we are seeing the onset of an irreversible decline. Quite the opposite: The Higher Education space is full of activity and new talk. But most of the energy is directed to piecemeal, more-of-the-same efforts. Employability is a big thing, perhaps rightly so at a time when the links between college education and middle class prosperity are being irretrievably broken. Everyone seems to love the Online Technologies, but as the new TV, so that the lectures can be broadcast far and wide. And, at the time when the demand for Higher Ed seems to be at the all time high, an elaborate reputation industry, complete with its own journals, conferences and pundits, seemed to have taken off.
All of this is great, except that this makes current Higher Ed even more a thing of the past. When middle class careers are breaking down, institutions are croaking about employability of the last century variety. Online technologies have been stripped to become TV with quizzes, and the field is littered with failed attempts to transfer the broadcast mentality of the current teaching into the brave new world of peer-to-peer conversations. And, the institutional presumptions, buffeted by 'Oxford Pretense' (which can roughly be the British equivalent of American 'Carnegie Creep' or more contemporary 'Harvard Envy'), run amok, missing out on all too obvious 'feature fatigue' as evidenced in growing enrolments in no-frills For-Profit schools across the world.
So, in a way, Higher Ed is an engine heading in a meaningless direction full steam. The sector believes that public reverence about institutions guarantees it an irrevocable role in modern society; indeed, the Higher Ed leaders must talk more frequently with Church leaders and Bankers how well such presumptions hold true. With institutions, Press, Police, Politicians, falling off the mantle all around us, walking in sleep, as the universities tend to do, isn't a good idea any more. It needs an update, a new paradigm - okay, a new purpose: When the system is broken, it is incumbent on the Educators who come up with new ideas. The sector must look beyond snake oil of middle class jobs to see how it can equip pupils to adjust and live in the modern world: What new values, as opposed to the old ones, do they need to espouse to be successful? The sector must take the lead to understand what it means to have the technologies that we have, how does it change the conversations not just in societies but about them. And, it must offer alternate ideas than just blind faith in institutions, indeed the same cloak behind which it hides itself, and redefine how one would find a moral living even within the atomised anonymity of the modern life.
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